What will survive our age?

MAY 13 04

I was thinking about the difficulty of discovering the truth of contemporary events, despite the fact that this is supposed to be the Information Age. The fragmentary reports of antiquity, the bare bones of what happened licked clean by time, are more compelling and paradoxically fresher than what appears in our media.

In thousands of years what will remain of our civilisation? Although we have never had a greater capacity to produce information and store it in a variety of forms, how much of it are we carving into bones and casting into bronze vessels, which after all is how the Shang dynasty survived (thought to be mythical until a century ago). And despite having such a capacity to produce information, we also have an infinitely greater capacity to destroy it. The Fragments of Heraclitus survived because people quoted him and some of their works survived. That his text appears to have been about the massive onsurge of the river of time washing away practically everything of one's own time, it has an irony about it I appreciate. It is almost as if the work that we today call 'The Fragments' was formed by this very process, destruction by transience. One piece of floating thistledown lingers longer, caught on sticky honeydew excreted on a branch by an insect, while the rest gets swept away. Heraclitus was keenly aware of it, and relentless time appears to have been a fine editor for him.

I was thinking this morning that in the distant future we ourselves, or what at least of our DNA has survived and evolved (personally I am not sure I am still actually the same species as most wandering around today), will probably be launching into space in super-fast vehicles on an archeological mission to find Voyager's splendid Golden Record.

Given that most people today know very little about the contents of the Golden Record, and the 1978 book about it and 1992 CD-ROM of it are already out of print back here on Earth, perhaps knowledge of it will survive in the far future only in the form of a fable. But that's okay, since fable and legend have proved their longevity many times over, and eventually some bright person will work out that it is not a fable at all, but a genuine fragment of history, and the children's story of the people who sent their records into space just before 'The Dark Times' will be front page news. The Argo will go in search of it like some miraculous Golden Fleece.

More likely, it and us will be completely forgotten. They will know less about us than we know about ancient peoples now, the remains of our glorious skyscrapers not surviving as well as Saxon hillforts, our photographs and art fading faster than cave paintings, and our digital information riddled with digital worms, crumbling away to random zeros and ones no less than our acid paper to dust. Then one day the record skinned in unoxidising gold and thrust at great expense into the vacuum of space far away from the corrosive fingers of humanity for potential extraterrestrials to find, since that was an optimistic time, will be found by ourselves pushing back the frontiers of our universe at a speed greater than 1970s technology could muster, its advantage being its head start. The civilisation that produced it mouldering in some still radioactive sulphurous sedimentary layer of ash the geologists of the future have dubbed as 'Hell'.

It seems likely that this physical object we sent in search of extraterrestrial spacefarers will accidentally become the only surviving record of our own history and a real treasure of our distant future. We will find it ourselves and listen to birdsong from extinct birds and be amazed that whales made such sounds, since their bones in museums are so silent. It will be like listening to recordings of dinosaurs made at the time. Probably the only worthwhile thing to do right now as a civilisation is to attempt to preserve our complete known history by sending it into space. It is sad to say, but reliable archival conditions are fast disappearing on the Earth. But of course we will not do it, and the Golden Record could be all that survives us. Though there is a beauty in that too.

Like generations before who made their golden objects to serve as things fit to present to their deity, we too have done the same in our own way. Probably the Golden Record was our greatest achievement last century from the perspective of the ages. In our wars we managed to destroy many of the great things of the past, and the melted-down gold from the Buddhas in Kabul's old museum is probably the same gold now being used by al Qaeda to reward the beheading of westerners. At least now the motive is out in the open as purely financial. The war will be won by the highest bidder. End of subject.

Myself, I sit in the garden counting the days of peace remaining with gratitude thinking about what best serves the needs of eternity and has it been done yet. In my considered opinion, there is nothing important remaining to be done, though there are always other things that can be done.

Our age most fundamentally is the Space Age at its dawn, the Information Age is just a lot of paper scattered to the wind or burnt unread. No-one's interested, newspapers litter the gutters of our cities natural companions of broken umbrellas and one pans the web for days on end like a river of silt for the occasional speck of gold. Despite the fact that most of the world is still throwing rocks at each other like cavemen, a most precious distillate of our time floats like a leaf on a breeze in the quiet dignity and vast emptiness of space, recording a few of the true things of our time, our languages, our music, the sounds of the natural world, uncluttered by small-minded religious bigotry, barbarism, pointless wars, and self-serving political agendas, which are common to all times and nothing of note.